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February 13, 2020
Brad Jamison

How stress at work hurts employee mental health—and how recognition & rewards can help

The conversation around mental health and stress at work has come to the forefront in recent years, and employers are routinely looking for ways to improve employee mental health. Employee recognition and rewards programs are one way some employers are combatting work-related stress and creating a better workplace for stressed-out employees.

Let’s be real: No matter the job, stress at work happens

For 83% of American workers, though, work-related stress is an ongoing issue—and it takes a toll on both employees and employers. Not only does stress lead to significant physical and mental health challenges for employees (more on that soon) but it erodes workplace performance, too.

Poor performance can be a sign of several underlying issues, but stress has particular consequences for employee performance that can end up creating stress for employers as well. Stressed-out employees tend to not stick around, leading to higher turnover, which spells increased costs.

Not sure where to start with turnover?

This handy guide has a few answers.

Work-related stress has become such a prevalent issue that it costs the U.S. economy over $300 billion annually in absenteeism, turnover, and poor productivity—and that’s just the performance side. Medical, legal, and insurance costs associated with work-related stress round out the sky-high costs.

The stats on employee mental health and work-related stress are... stressful

Employers obviously do not want their employees stressed to the max, even if they’re mostly concerned about their bottom line. But for more compassionate employers, they understand that even their top employees aren't immune to the mental health impacts of work-related stress.

But employee mental health concerns extend across all industries, into numerous professions, and millions of positions. So, no matter whether you’re a fresh, young tech startup with a world-changing idea or a seasoned veteran at an established corporation, odds are, your employees are experiencing (or will experience) mental health challenges related to workplace stress.

Last year, the World Health Organization released findings on mental health in the workplace.

While much is pretty alarming (a rise in depression and anxiety, mental and financial impact of a negative work environment) there’s promising news, too:

  • Work is positive for good mental health; it’s just that a negative working environment is a breeding ground for employee mental health issues. 
  • Most employers who make the effort to support employees’ mental health see benefits.
  • For every $1 employers spend on increased treatment for mental health conditions, they see a $4 return on their investment in improved mental health and productivity.

Stress at work: it doesn't start (or end) in the workplace

This may sound like a no-brainer, but work is far from the only thing stressing out employees. Between families, community commitments, side jobs, physical health, personal projects, bills, and endless other factors, people are understandably stressed. 

When the sources of stress compound, they become a potent brew for poor mental health. And, since most of us spend 50% or more of our waking hours in the workplace, this is usually when everything comes to the fore. 

What’s impacting employee mental health?

We’ve covered some of the common causes of stress, but the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that health care is one of the most commonly cited sources of stress for 69% of Americans. It also doesn’t help that mental health care isn’t covered by all insurance plans, leaving many Americans to either pay out of pocket or forego mental health services altogether.

The APA’s report revealed that, when it comes to health care stress, all demographics feel it. However, millennials and Gen Z adults (the largest and soon-to-be-second-largest working populations, respectively) experience greater stress over health care than their parents and grandparents. This is a red flag for employers who have the option to offer insurance plans covering mental health services, or offer wellness alternatives and workplace recognition programs, so employees can have easier access to mental health services.

Why employers should take employee mental health seriously 

Bottom lines aside, employee mental health should be a key concern for employers who want each of their team members feeling their mental best. While each employee’s mental health state ebbs and flows, (and dips, rebounds, and soars), their quality of mental health is also contagious.

The old saying “misery loves company” rings true in the workplace, and a toxic work environment is one of the leading causes of employee exits.

Don't forget:

Toxicity applies to positivity, too. Read more.

Employers should take note: if you notice an employee struggling in the workplace, reach out to them. See what’s going on. They may be closed off in the beginning—especially if they’re used to being tight-lipped about mental health struggles at work—but getting to the source could help them more than you might anticipate (and help their negativity from spreading to other employees).

Recognition can help

It’s probably obvious that your employees want their good work called out. But if you need additional convincing, take Psychology Today’s findings. They found that many employees aren’t happy with how little recognition they get from their employers. In fact, about half of the survey’s respondents reported that their workplace’s recognition program wasn’t fair and that their efforts mattered little. Big yikes.

No workplace is immune to mental health challenges

For all of the awesome, ground-breaking ideas they churn out, tech startups haven’t yet invented a way to keep poor mental health and stress out of their incubators. 

Not to pick on tech, but the industry as a whole is confronting workplace stress. From the rigors of an always-on, one-Slack-away culture to unreasonable productivity expectations, many tech workers are feeling the heat more acutely than ever before.

The situation has reached a point where some companies are facing the problem head-on—and not just for their bottom line. Tech execs and their HR teams see value in helping employees get the mental health care they need to not only remain productive but live the best lives they can outside of the physical and digital workplace.

Since employees’ mental health states stem from a number of factors, some tech companies are covering many bases to ensure better brains and bodies. 

In 2019, Inc. compiled a list of some tech companies’ approaches to tackling mental health issues in the workplace—all of which have shown to positively impact employees’ mental health. Here’s what they found:

  1. Employees want flexibility. You know your employees want (ahem, need) mental health care access, but finding a starting point can be tough—and so can finding an option that fits everyone’s needs.

    Offering monthly recurring employee allowances that cover everything from gym memberships, to classes, to counseling gives your employees the freedom they need to make the decisions that most positively impact their health.
  1. Talk to your employees. This one may sound easy, but if you’re not used to talking about personal struggles at work, it can be a challenge for many leaders. 

    Regardless, make the effort to talk to your employees about their struggles, goals, hopes, dreams, challenges—and share yours. Communication leads to a tighter team. But, more importantly, it can give some employees the push they need to seek out the mental health care they need. And, according to Inc., they may not even know that their health care plan or employee rewards program covers mental health services. You could be the one who helps them get the help they need.
  1. Call in the pros. Remember how 83% of workers are stressed? Part of that stress stems from finding mental health care professionals to help them through their challenges.

    To make it easier for employees, some employers are bringing in counselors, life coaches, and other professionals to streamline employees’ paths to better mental health. Cost-wise, this may be out of reach for some employers. If so, really consider employee allowances and rewards programs so your people can get access to the right care for their specific needs.
  1. Make mental health care a priority. Want to sweeten the deal for them? Incentivize employees who seek out mental health care services with an employee recognition and rewards program.

    For many employees, getting the help they need is daunting. Call out their bravery; show them you recognize that they’re taking the steps to improve their mental wellbeing and that it’s not only encouraged, but recognized and rewarded.

Did you know there are hundreds of mental-health boosting merchants in the Zestful Fitness & Health Catalog? Anyone with a wellness balance can seek out services like massage, acupuncture, and even download dozens of different meditation apps—all with their Zestful balance.

Learn more—reach out.

Zestful: recognize and reward your employees—minus the admin work.

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